Andragogy – The Principles of Adult Learning

If you’ve spent any time in the education sector, you’ve probably heard of pedagogy. But you may not have come across the concept of “andragogy”. It’s a key concept in the world of learning and development and should be understood by those who value the principles of learning.

Typically, andragogy means the understanding of the science and practice of adult learning. This contrasts to pedagogy, which is the understanding of the science and practice of children learning. In Greek, andragogy means “man-leading” while pedagogy means “child-leading”.

Adult learning theory is a set of guiding principles and best practices for teaching adult learners. The concept was popularised by American educator and scholar Malcolm Knowles under the name andragogy in the 1960s, although the term was first coined all the way back in 1833 by a German teacher named Alexander Knapp to categorise and describe Plato’s theory of education

Knowles’s theory of andragogy is an attempt to develop a theory specifically for adult learning. Knowles was convinced that adult learning had to be self-driven. Rather than having education be teacher-centric, adult learning should be centred around the students and teach them the power of self-motivated learning.

In 1980, Knowles adapted his concept to include four assumptions about adult learners. They revolve around self-concept, the adult learning experience, readiness to learn, and orientation to learning. He added a fifth assumption to the list in 1984: motivation to learn.

Self-concept: One of the most significant differences between how children and adults learn revolves around independence. Children are “dependent personalities,” meaning their learning process revolves around instruction. As a person matures from a child to an adult, their self-concept also matures. They move from being dependent on others to being self-driven and independent. Maturity leads to growing independence and autonomy. Whereas children are fully dependent on others for learning and understanding, adults learn and understand independently.

Adult learning experience: In addition to a maturing self-confidence, adults build an increasing reservoir of experience. This increasing experience becomes a deepening resource for their learning. Children, understandably, have minimal experience to draw on when it comes to learning new concepts. Instead, they rely on the experiences of others. Adults, of course, carry plenty of experiences to contextualise new ideas. This background allows things to come more naturally or more intuitively. Their experience allows them to intuit things that they never would have understood previously.

Readiness to learn: As people mature, they tend to centre their learning around their assigned roles and responsibilities (employee, parent, spouse, citizen, etc.), and their readiness to learn becomes oriented toward those roles. Adults are more ready to learn when they need to know something. This applies to both personal and professional life. Consider how this plays out. As an adult moves into the workforce, they must orient their learning toward the skills necessary for their job. As they become a parent, they suddenly must learn all that’s involved in taking care of children. New roles require new knowledge.

Orientation to learning: When a person is young, their application of a subject is postponed, and their orientation is subject-centred. For example, when someone takes trigonometry in grade 11, they don’t normally apply it immediately to real life problems. They must wait until they’re older and encounter a need for trigonometry. As a person matures, their application of learning becomes immediate and more problem centred. Adults encounter problems, learn how to solve those problems, and then immediately apply their knowledge to those problems. In other words, children are more receptive to general education, while adults learn best when applying new concepts to their everyday lives.

Motivation to learn: A child’s motivation to learn is typically external. Their parents tell them to go to school, and their teacher makes sure they apply themselves while there. This changes as they grow into adults. Adults are motivated to learn internally. They want to grow in self-development. They desire to move up the career ladder and need to acquire new skills.  Instead of having education forced upon them, adults pursue education. They may put themselves in a new learning environment for a raise, promotion, or related reward.

Here are some of the main differences between pedagogy and andragogy:

In addition to these pillars there are seven principles that can be applied to adult learning:

  • Adults must want to learn: They learn effectively only when they are free to direct their own learning and have a strong inner and excited motivation to develop a new skill or acquire a particular type of knowledge – this sustains learning.
  • Adults will learn only what they feel they need to learn: Adults are practical in their approach to learning; they want to know: “How is this going to help me right now? Is it relevant and does it meet my targeted goals?”
  • Adults learn by doing: Adolescents learn by doing, but adults learn through active practice and participation. This helps in integrating component skills into a coherent whole.
  • Adult learning focuses on problem solving: Adolescents tend to learn skills sequentially. Adults tend to start with a problem and then work to find a solution. A meaningful engagement, such as posing and answering realistic questions and problems is necessary for deeper learning.
  • Experience affects adult learning: Adults have more experience than adolescents. This can be an asset and a liability, if prior knowledge is inaccurate, incomplete, or naive, it can interfere with or distort the integration of incoming information.
  • Adults learn best in an informal situation: Adolescents must follow a curriculum. Often, adults learn by taking responsibility by the value and need of content they must understand and the goals it will achieve. Being in an inviting, collaborative, and networking environment as an active participant in the learning process makes it efficient.
  • Adults want guidance and consideration as equal partners in the process: Adults want information that will help them improve their situation. They do not want to be told what to do and they evaluate what helps and what doesn’t. They want to choose options based on their individual needs and the meaningful impact a learning engagement could provide. Socialisation is more important among adults.

Knowles’ principles give L&D teams a framework to follow by providing insight into how their target audience learns best, which should be the backbone of any programme. To take these principles a step further, Knowles offered the following suggestions for putting adult learning theory into practice.

Promote co-operative learning: Adults learn best when they’re in a more collaborative environment. Research shows learners who interact with others during learning experiences tend to be more engaged than those who don’t. It’s important that L&D teams leverage video calls and online messaging systems to keep learners connected through discussion forums and group sessions.

Build on each subsequent activity: The “forgetting curve” is a theory that states once a person learns something, they immediately start forgetting it, with the most memory loss happening within the first few days. One way for combating this effect is “active recall”. Active recall is when a learner is challenged to remember something they’ve previously learned, causing them to think about the material in a deeper way and increasing the chance that it will stay in their long-term memory. Learning designers can incorporate previously taught information to encourage active recall as they introduce new ideas.

Collaborate with learners: Another principle of adult learning theory is that adults desire to have a say in how they’re being trained. So whenever appropriate, involve learners in the planning of training programs. L&D teams should also make efforts, such as the use of feedback surveys, to learn which types of training employees prefer.

Research learners’ interests: Adaptive learning tools give L&D the ability to truly tailor the learning experience to the needs of everyone. Even if L&D teams use more traditional delivery methods.

Knowledge of andragogy can significantly improve the adult learning experience. Just as education can be tailored for children through pedagogy and its principles, andragogy provides a framework for meaningful and impactful adult education. Adult learning theory gives L&D teams a guidepost for how to design training for maximum engagement.

Written by Rob Ewart




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